Saturday, December 31, 2011

Esmerelda's Imagination

An actress acquaintance of mine—let's call her Esmerelda—once said, "I can't imagine being anything except an actress." To which the retort was given, "You can't be much of an actress then, can you?"

I was reminded of this exchange when someone said to me about Go, "I can't imagine programming in a language that doesn't have generics." My retort, unspoken this time, was, "You can't be much of a programmer, then, can you?"

This is not an essay about generics (which are a fine thing and may arrive in Go one day, or may not) but about imagination, or at least what passes for imagination among computer programmers: complaint. A friend observed that the definitive modern pastime is to complain on line. For the complainers, it's fun, for the recipients of the complaint it can be dispiriting. As a recipient, I am pushing back—by complaining, of course.

Not so long ago, a programmer was someone who programs, but that seems to be the last thing programmers do nowadays. Today, the definition of a programmer is someone who complains unless the problem being solved has already been solved and whose solution can be expressed in a single line of code. (From the point of view of a language designer, this reduces to a corollary of language success: every program must be reducible to single line of code or your language sucks. The lessons of APL have been lost.)

A different, more liberal definition might be that a programmer is someone who approaches every problem exactly the same way and complains about the tools if the approach is unsuccessful.

For the programmer population, the modern pastime demands that if one is required to program, or at least to think while programming, one blogs/tweets/rants instead. I have seen people write thousands of words of on-line vituperation that problem X requires a few extra keystrokes than it might otherwise, missing the irony that had they spent those words on programming, they could have solved the problem many times over with the saved keystrokes. But, of course, that would be programming.

Two years ago Go went public. This year, Dart was announced. Both came from Google but from different teams with different goals; they have little in common. Yet I was struck by a property of the criticisms of Dart in the first few days: by doing a global substitution of "Go" for "Dart", many of the early complaints about Go would have fit right into the stream of Dart invective. It was unnecessary to try Go or Dart before commenting publicly on them; in fact, it was important not to (for one thing, trying them would require programming). The criticisms were loud and vociferous but irrelevant because they weren't about the languages at all. They were just a standard reaction to something new, empty of meaning, the result of a modern programmer's need to complain about everything different. Complaints are infinitely recyclable. ("I can't imagine programming in a language without XXX.") After all, they have a low quality standard: they need not be checked by a compiler.

A while after Go launched, the criticisms changed tenor somewhat. Some people had actually tried it, but there were still many complainers, including the one quoted above. The problem now was that imagination had failed: Go is a language for writing Go programs, not Java programs or Haskell programs or any other language's programs. You need to think a different way to write good Go programs. But that takes time and effort, more than most will invest. So the usual story is to translate one program from another language into Go and see how it turns out. But translation misses idiom. A first attempt to write, for example, some Java construct in Go will likely fail, while a different Go-specific approach might succeed and illuminate. After 10 years of Java programming and 10 minutes of Go programming, any comparison of the language's capabilities is unlikely to generate insight, yet here come the results, because that's a modern programmer's job.

It's not all bad, of course. Two years on, Go has lots of people who've spent the time to learn how it's meant to be used, and for many willing to invest such time the results have been worthwhile. It takes time and imagination and programming to learn how to use any language well, but it can be time well spent. The growing Go community has generated lots of great software and has given me hope, hope that there may still be actual programmers out there.

However, I still see far too much ill-informed commentary about Go on the web, so for my own protection I will start 2012 with a resolution:

I resolve to recognize that a complaint reveals more about the complainer than the complained-about. Authority is won not by rants but by experience and insight, which require practice and imagination. And maybe some programming.